A foursome to fear

The Baltimore Sun

This season, the Ravens' offensive line has dealt with zone blitzes, random defensive schemes and freelancing safeties.

When the Ravens take on the defending Super Bowl New York Giants tomorrow, the offensive linemen will occupy themselves with only the Giants' four defensive linemen.

But that doesn't make the task any easier.

Of New York's 30 sacks - which rank third in the NFL - 26 1/2 have been made by the defensive linemen. That's a whole sack more than the total compiled through the first nine games of last season by the same unit that also included Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.

Left defensive end Justin Tuck's 8 1/2 sacks rank second in the league among linemen and sixth overall. Right end Mathias Kiwanuka and defensive tackle Fred Robbins have posted 5 1/2 sacks each, which is a major reason the Giants' pass defense is ranked second after surrendering just 177.1 yards per game.

"They get after it," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "They're the defending champs, and they've been playing well. They've been playing like that this year. They like to put pressure on the quarterback and try to force him to make mistakes. We're going to go out there and concentrate on playing our game and doing what we've been doing the last four or five weeks."

The Ravens' four-game winning streak has coincided with matchups against pass defenses ranked outside the top third in the NFL. (Miami is 25th, Oakland 13th, Cleveland 21st and Houston 14th.) And only the Dolphins and Raiders rank in the top 10 in sacks.

But New York's is no ordinary defense. Because the unit needs just its front four to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the linebackers can drop into coverage and assist the secondary. With so many bodies in the passing lanes, the Giants have allowed just one 300-yard passer (Cleveland's Derek Anderson) and two 100-yard receivers (Cleveland's Braylon Edwards and Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh).

"We've had good success with pressure from our front four," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "And when we've brought some form of ... blitz, we've added to that, and we've been able to pressure the quarterback to a certain extent, the result being that we've covered better and we've done a better job of that in the secondary. It's allowed us to have some flexibility and some freedom when we do have to cover, that we do have some people that can rush the passer."

One way to combat that strategy is to run the ball effectively. Using draws and delays might force the linebackers to stay closer to the line of scrimmage.

Another option is using short passes to the running backs and tight ends on underneath routes to keep the linebackers honest.

"If we take that [tactic] away, hopefully, they have to adjust their game plan," Ravens left guard Ben Grubbs said. "It's just going to be one of those games where you're going to have to bring your face mask and strap up and dig in the dirt and get ready to go."

The Ravens' offensive linemen are quick to point out that they aren't exactly new to this game. The offense has allowed just 17 sacks, which is tied for the 14th fewest in the league, against some of the most formidable defenses in the NFL.

"We've gone against some very challenging defensive lines, of course, very large men like Shawn Rogers and also very athletic men, [like Kyle] Vanden Bosch on the outside with Tennessee," center Jason Brown said. "So, there have been several challenges that we've faced already thus far. This week, it will definitely be another challenge."

Notes: : Wide receiver Derrick Mason was upgraded to limited participation after missing two consecutive days of practice and is listed as questionable for tomorrow's game. "He's kind of a little sore," coach John Harbaugh said. "I'd say he's working through the injury right now. He looked OK for practice. We'll see how he is on Sunday." Joining Mason as questionable are free safety Ed Reed (hamstring), cornerback Samari Rolle (neck surgery), offensive tackle Willie Anderson (sprained left ankle), tight end Daniel Wilcox (hamstring) and rookie safety Tom Zbikowski (thigh). Wide receiver Terrance Copper (shoulder) sat out his third straight day of practice and has been ruled out. ... Harbaugh's name has been mentioned in early conversations for Coach of the Year candidates, but that's news to him. "It's not something we're even thinking about," he said. "Wouldn't even begin to think about it. Any kind of individual award that anybody gets, that's a team accomplishment." ... Linebacker Ray Lewis was asked Wednesday by the media that cover the Giants about trying to tackle the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Brandon Jacobs. "So what are you going to do: run from him?" Lewis scoffed. "You play football. I'm chasing him. Size doesn't matter in this game." ... Despite an AFC North-high 16 players on injured reserve, the Ravens' confidence remains high. "With as much adversity as we've faced with our injuries, many people would have discounted us a long time ago. But we have some men that have definitely stepped up in our time of need," Brown said. "It just goes to show how strong our depth is on this team and also that those guys have stepped up. They want to show that, 'Hey, we're ready. We're ready to support the team and we can go on.' "

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